Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Waffling (November 22nd, 2014)

It's all been a bit V for Vendetta for me lately, though I'm actually through most of the stuff about the comic and tying up some loose ends. I think the shape of this chapter is interesting. One of the places where there really was a big creative decision to make was where to put the climax to Book One. What's the Number One Iconic Alan Moore work pre-Watchmen? Where do you put the emphasis and let him have his moment of victory before anyone else really comes into the story? And I picked Swamp Thing, which I think was sound. The other two candidates are, ultimately, hampered by resolving well after Watchmen. So this chapter is doing a lot of the de-escalating necessary. It feels kind of like a Game of Thrones finale - the episode that's after the big one. It's a nice pace and tone to be working in. Two more after it before we're done with Book One. Book Two terrifies me.

Except of course today was basically just wall to wall Smash Bros. Or will be. I've hardly been touching my video games, actually - so let's waffle on. Interesting stuff of the current generation? Or in the evergreen PC/mobile sphere? Just don't make it about ethics in video game journalism.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Duty Officer, Please: The Doctors Revisited (Jon Pertwee)

The Pertwee era, and I can vouch for this having written for it, presents a major challenge in providing a history of Doctor Who, simply because it doesn't fit with any of it. For 60% of it, the premise of the series is out of place. The Doctor is portrayed, inevitably, as a reaction against the previous Doctor, but the previous Doctor is the template for every single Doctor after Pertwee. It's got an awful lot of military action-hero stuff that's kind of weird for the program. It's an odd experiment that has really survived as a sort of limit case for what Doctor Who can be.

This is, ultimately, what The Doctors Revisited does. Pertwee is admitted up front as an oddity, and then studied and explained in half an hour. Moffat is on hand to explain why Jo Grant, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier, and the Master worked, and in three out of four cases it's "the actor playing the part." And an expanded field of celebrity guests are on hand to talk about the impact of it, reaffirming that this wasn't just an odd era of Doctor Who, it was a major part of the popular consciousness.

It's not particularly flashy - of the first three episodes, it's the one making the simplest case. Both Hartnell and Troughton were defined in terms of how they anticipated the present. Pertwee is simply explained as it was. But it's a persuasive case. Manning, Courtney, and Delgado really were fantastic actors. As was Pertwee, although he gets somewhat short shrift in his own special. The clips and sequences they pick are compelling early 70s television, or, perhaps more accurately, look reasonably like a modern sense of what compelling early 70s television would look like.

If there's an objection to be had - and I'm not entirely convinced there is - it's in the choice of stories to air after it, which is Spearhead From Space. But this objection is rather churlish. Unlike Tomb of the Cybermen, it's not really that you wish they'd picked a better story, or that they'd had a better story available to pick. Spearhead From Space is absolutely brilliant. And as Moffat enthusiastically points out in his introduction to it, it's gloriously weird in a very Doctor Who sort of way. It's a fantastic choice of Pertwee stories to show in 2013.

No, the problem is that you almost wish they'd picked a crappier one. The realization that the Pertwee era doesn't quite fit into any coherent narrative of Doctor Who's history has led to a genuinely unfortunate squeamishness about it. And so we get a very weird sort and not entirely accurate message out of this program. Yes, the Pertwee era had some real strengths, and yes, it was massively popular television, but the stuff that was popular doesn't much look like Spearhead From Space.

Am I saying they should have inflicted The Claws of Axos upon an unsuspecting population? Well, yes, because that's some of the most fun you can have with a Doctor Who DVD there, since The Claws of Axos is wall-to-wall "what the fuck" in a way that very few things that aren't The Web Planet are. But more realistically, I'm saying I wish they'd done Terror of the Autons, or Carnival of Monsters, if they were willing to admit that Pertwee went into space, which they don't actually ever do.

Instead we get the explanation of why the era doesn't fit, followed by a story that simultaneously encapsulates how it does fit while highlighting the essential differences. Which isn't untrue, but misses the opportunity to say "no, really, this was what was popular and beloved in 1973." The complete absence of Carnival of Monsters is actually worth stressing, since for years this was the BBC's preferred Pertwee story, and since it is in point of fact brilliant. It shows off so many of the best parts of what Doctor Who in the 1970s was. Yes, it's missing UNIT, but so is most of the Pertwee era, in truth.

It's understandable why the Pertwee era is a problem for writing histories of Doctor Who. But there's a squeamishness and an urge to apologize for it that's taken root as a result of that difficulty, and that's unfortunate. It's strange - it's one of my least favorite eras of Doctor Who, and this is unrelentingly praiseful of it, and yet I'm left with the inescapable sense that it was far too hard on the era all the same.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Comics Reviews (11/19/14)

You know the drill. Worst to best, but everything something I paid money for.

Annihilator #3

This isn't really working for me. It feels like the sort of default setting of Grant Morrison - like it's the statistical average of his other work. The sci-fi sections feel like Morrison doing self-parody, which, to be fair, they might well deliberately be, but with the real-world sections feeling a bit flat, this is just feeling like a mess to me.

Fables #146

Four to go, yes?

The Amazing Spider-Man #10

Here the basic operational problem of the Spider-Verse crossover becomes clear, which is that your storytelling gets really muddy when essentially every character is in the same costume. I also find my basic not-much-liking Superior Spider-Man to be a problem here, and the sequence that amounts to "here's where all the other books spin off from this" is painful. Hoping this finds its keel quickly, as I loved the start.

Guardians of the Galaxy #21

All the typical problems of the first issue of a Bendis arc, namely that the entire issue is spent slowly walking up to the stated premise of the arc. The last splash is brilliant, though.

New Avengers #26

Love the Doctor Doom stuff, but found Tony kind of fruitless here. His ranting arrogance at the end is nice, I suppose, if you get off on "Tony Stark is an arrogant, selfish bastard," but I don't. I like "Tony Stark is flawed but self-evidently one of the good guys," and find the entire amoral Tony thing to just not be my cup of tea. If you like it, you'll probably like this.

Loki: Agent of Axis #8

Much as I don't like Axis, I have to admit that inverting Loki is an absolutely genius premise, and Ewing does some lovely work in changing the underlying tone of the book. The mock heroic stuff is great, and Verity really jumps out as a character here. Good stuff, though I admit, knowing that this two-parter is going to be followed by a Kid Loki story makes me ever so slightly restless about it.

Avengers #38

I adore Cyclops here. I can't wait for X-Men to catch up to this status quo. I love who the Avengers are here - it's such a deliciously weird team. And it ends with an army of Shang-Chis. This is basically what comics exist for, no?

Daredevil #10

This Purple Man story was probably an issue too long on the whole, but the end here, and especially the comic equivalent to a post-credit scene is absolutely brilliant. In general, on this book, I'm a bit torn between feeling like Waid is kinda played out on Daredevil and the sad knowledge that whoever follows him is just going to Frank Miller all over the rug.

Uncanny X-Men #28

Bendis has a good premise here, and the good sense to keep the focus on it. The decision to properly have Cyclops get off the mat and start being awesome is a good one - you can see from here to Avengers #38 here, and it's a lovely line of sight. I really hoped, following Gillen's X-Men run, that someone would have the guts to do a Cyclops Is Right comic. Here it is, and I'm all for it.

Moon Knight #9

When I saw this in my pulls, I thought "man, why didn't I make that one of the titles I dropped?" So glad I didn't, because this really, really impressed me. The twist that unfurls here is just masterful - what looks like a very generic and predictable sort of comic in one absolutely brilliant idea becomes another one entirely. This is better than any of Ellis's issues. Absolutely brilliant, and it would be my pick of the week most weeks. Except...

The Multiversity: Pax Americana

Every once in a while, a highly anticipated comic steps up. We've known Pax Americana was coming for years. Morrison's response to Watchmen. A comic with an impossibly high bar to clear, and one that's only gotten higher as Moore and Morrison's sniping at each other became more and more active. And yet here we are, and it's... a reasonable comic. A skillful emulation of Watchmen's storytelling techniques, with enough sly jokes to keep it impish, enough clever ideas to keep it honest, and, perhaps most importantly, an honest enough assessment of what Watchmen had to say. Morrison pushes it to mild self parody without actually going so far as to suggest that Watchmen wasn't good. And then it suggests that all of this is, for better or for worse, a bit limited and, dare I say it, hermetic. Which has always been a fair critique of Watchmen.

On top of that, it's just very good. It's well-done. Quitely's art is superb, the eight/sixteen panel grid suiting him well. Morrison's writing is sharp. It's dense and chewy and a damn fine comic.

The 3-D Universe is a Hologrammatic Side-Effect (The Last War in Albion Part 71: Swamp Thing in Space)

This is the twenty-first of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the sixth volume. This volume is available in the US here and the UK here, as well as being obtainable at your local bookstore or comic shop. Finding the other volumes are left as an exercise for the reader.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionFollowing his story of Swamp Thing laying ecological siege to Gotham City, Alan Moore killed him. Again. 

"I love the way science SOUNDS. I love the ideas for their art. There’s a crazy beauty about a theory of dimensional structure that assembles itself into a snowflake, or the idea that reality is a two-dimensional plane of information and the 3-D universe is a hologrammatic side-effect. And that’s how I write science fiction. I use the sound of the ideas and then make it all up. And then it all comes true anyway." - Warren Ellis

Figure 535: The steady pan out from
Gotham towards the planet on which
Swamp Thing has landed. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Rich Veitch, Alfredo
Alcala, and John Totleben, from Swamp
 #55, 1986)
This is confirmed in the next issue, which focuses primarily on Abby’s attendance of a memorial service for Swamp Thing, and in which she comes to terms with her loss. At the end of the service a man comes up to her introducing himself as Boston Brand and explaining that he’s “checked out all the places he might have ended up,” and saying that as far as he can tell, Swamp Thing isn’t in any afterlife. The issue ends four pages of page-tall narrow panels zooming out from Abby leaving a rose upon Swamp Thing’s memorial, out to the city streets, and then the planet, and finally across the cosmos. As the captions narrate Abby’s final acceptance of her lover’s death, in which she misunderstands the words Deadman said to her. “Maybe a wino’s delusion is the best thing I have to cling to right now,” she thinks. “Perhaps when we die, there’s another world somewhere. Perhaps there’s a heaven so big it has room for someone like you. I hope so. I hope you’re there now. Goodbye, my love. Goodbye.” At which point the steady pan out finally arrives, galaxies away, at a crater on an alien planet. With a “sklitch! pwack scluc kwilp thap pletch,” a figure emerges, stark blue and made of alien vegetation, but nevertheless, clearly the Swamp Thing. 

This marks the beginning of Moore’s final arc on Swamp Thing - a nine issue story about Swamp Thing’s return to Earth. By this point, as Moore puts it, “I’d done nearly all my original ideas on the book, all the ones that Steve and John had contributed to, all the ones I’d subsequently come up with - I’d pretty much done everything that I’d wanted with the character.” The final arc, then, was designed as “this big space storyline” where “I’d get all of my science-fiction Swamp Thing ideas out of my system.” Moore did not even write all nine issues, with both Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch (who Moore had by this point tipped as his successor on the book) chipping in fill-in stories. Bissette’s, in Swamp Thing #59, exists mainly to heap further indignities upon Abby at the hands of Anton Arcane, while Veitch’s slots in between Moore’s final space-based story and the issue in which Swamp Thing finally returns to Earth, giving Swamp Thing an adventure with Jack Kirby’s New Gods. 

Figure 536: John Constantine, unbidden, appears to Swamp
Thing to serve as the snake in his garden. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp
 #56, 1986)
Moore’s ideas for sci-fi based Swamp Thing stories broadly fit into two categories: experimental stories that extended the psychedelic approach that characterized much of Moore’s Swamp Thing work, and stories that let Moore play with DC properties he’d been a fan of in his youth. The first issue of the arc, in Swamp Thing #56, fits into the former category. Entitled “My Blue Heaven,” the story features Swamp Thing on a planet teeming with plants and insect life, but with no intelligent life whatsoever. In total isolation, Swamp Thing explores the world, contemplating the vast blue landscape and the different shades: “the color of African skin… of shadow on snow… of a jay’s throat… the color of saxophones at dusk… of orbiting police lights smeared across tenement windows… of a flame’s intestines… of the faint tracery of veins beneath the ghost flesh of her forearm’s underside… of loneliness… of melancholy.” He experiments with different types of bodies, growing a body with air sacs that can float across the landscape, and growing a second body with which he can play chess (although every game ends in stalemate). Eventually he grows a doppelgänger of Abby, and an entire duplicate of Houma over which he can serve as demiurge. But within his soulless vegetable city he finds a version of John Constantine (who appears “at the corner table” of the Houma diner “alone in the concealing shadows,” a description that echoes Moore’s first encounter with Constantine in a sandwich shop), who points out to him that he is merely talking to himself. Unable now not to see the artifice of his creation, Swamp Thing flies into a rage and dismantles his world and finally flees, without knowing if there is anywhere he can possibly land, concluding that death is preferable to this isolated hell.

In many ways this echoes Moore’s third issue of Swamp Thing, “Swamped,” in which Swamp Thing nearly loses himself in the green as he reels from the revelation that he is not in fact Alec Holland. As in “Swamped,” Swamp Thing encounters a wealth of phantasms and mirrors of his past life, nearly losing his identity in the face of them. But whereas in “Swamped” Swamp Thing is ultimately happy to surrender himself to the green, finding it a place where he can at last be at peace and be happy, in “Another Blue World” his memory of and love for Abby renders the equivalent solitude unbearable, a testament to the breadth of change the character has undergone in the thirty-five issues since “Swamped.” 

Figure 537: Swamp Thing and Adam Strange realize they
share a home planet. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick
Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp Thing #58, 1986)
Having completed his meditations, Swamp Thing proceeds to jump through a series of other alien worlds, which Moore uses to explore the possible intersections between Swamp Thing and science fiction as it exists in DC’s line of comics. First is a two-issue story featuring Adam Strange, a present day human created by Julius Schwartz and most associated with the 1950s/60s sci-fi anthology series Mystery in Space (from which Moore derives the title of the arc’s first issue), who occasionally traveled from Earth to the alien planet of Rann via the Rannian’s “Zeta Beam” and had space adventures in a Buck Rogers/John Carter tradition. Moore matches up Strange with another set of DC aliens, the Thanagarians, who discovered a substance called Nth metal that defies gravity, and used it to dress up in hawk costumes, which provided the Silver Age origin story for Hawkman. The story is a fairly standard bit of space opera that is pretty clearly little more than an excuse for Moore to play with yet another corner of DC’s history that he’d enjoyed as a child (Strange’s run in Mystery in Space ran from 1959-65, or from the ages of six to twelve for Moore, while Thanagar first appeared in 1961, and the Silver Age Hawkman got his own series in 1964). 

Figure 538: John Totleben's experimental
artwork for Swamp Thing #60. (Written
by Alan Moore, 1987)
After the Bissette-penned fill-in issue, Moore continued with an issue titled after a David Bowie song, “Loving the Alien,” that served as an opportunity for John Totleben to engage in a more experimental art style than he’d previously been able to, and let Moore stretch into one of the most avant garde plots he’d written. The issue is constructed entirely in splash pages, with no dialogue to speak of. Instead the story is narrated by a mysterious alien entity, part flesh, part machine, floating in space and seeking a mate. Only Totleben’s art, drawn as a series of psychedelic collages often featuring only the vaguest implication of Swamp Thing’s figure, makes it clear who the “ghost” that haunts the narrator’s insides is. Moore’s narration, meanwhile, is an extended exercise in writing from a profoundly alien perspective. “How shall I say it,” the narrator writes. “How to describe the effect this last bare fact worked in me? He was of my flesh. I was melted by the implications. Yes… yes, that is it! ‘Melted.’ Not for my body, that was not melted, save for the unchanging magma, boiling ceaselessly around my nuclear core. Not my body, but rather my mind; my psychostructure; my self. My self is what melted. All the precisely indexed data, sucked greedily from the computer systems of a thousand doomed alien vessels; all my art and science and neurosynthesis; the logarithms and sines; the very formula of what I am… melted,” in a strange and slightly disorienting account of what is, in effect, the alien creature falling in love with Swamp Thing when he attempts to incarnate out of the plant matter that is the alien. The story is in most regards an interesting experiment as opposed to an entirely successful one, but nevertheless demonstrates Moore continuing to be aggressively experimental and to push himself even as he was bringing his time on Swamp Thing to a close.

Figure 539: Swamp Thing accidentally incarnates as a
grotesque assemblage of other people's bodies. (From
Swamp Thing #61, 1987)
The final portion of the outer space arc comes in Swamp Thing #61, a story called “All Flesh is Grass.” On one level this story is another excuse for Moore to play with a personal favorite concept within DC. But on another, it is an attempt to invert the premise of Swamp Thing and find a new way to do horror stories with it. This is not insignificant. Depending on the particulars of one’s definition, it is possible to argue that the last time Moore actually wrote a horror story in Swamp Thing was “A Murder of Crows,” all the way back in Swamp Thing #48. Certainly it has not been the dominant mode for the title to work in for some time. But in “All Flesh is Grass,” Moore finds a genuinely new way to present a horror story. The premise of “All Flesh is Grass” is that Swamp Thing finally makes it to the planet suggested by Adam Strange at the end of that story, J586, where it might be possible to fix Swamp Thing’s ability to communicate with plants so that he can talk to the Earth again. Unfortunately, as he materializes on J586, he realizes too late that all of the plant life on the planet is in fact sentient, and that he has built his body and consciousness out of thousands of living people, all of whose consciousnesses collide with his own, pulling him under and driving him hopelessly mad. Veitch depicts the scene in a nightmarish double page spread in which Swamp Thing’s hands are visibly formed out of screaming and horrified alien faces, while Moore narrates the psychological distress of the people trapped within Swamp Thing’s body. “The horror swiped blindly, gestured inarticulately, nothing but amok. In each hand a polite and well-mannered family clenched into a fist of bitterness and recrimination. The horror ran, palms damp with angry tears, fingers quarrelling.” 

Rescuing J586 from Swamp Thing’s rampage is Medphyl, the sector’s representative to the Green Lantern Corps. The Green Lantern Corps extend out of the Silver Age revamp of the Green Lantern away from being based on iconography of orientalist adventure and towards an expansive concept in which Green Lantern is just one of a vast organization of what are in effect intergalactic police, each patrolling a sector of space emerging conically out of the planet Oa, at the center of the universe, where the Green Lantern Corps is headquartered. Moore had long been fond of the concept, and his Order of the Black Sun back in his aborted 4-D War storyline for Doctor Who Monthly was, by his own admission, him nicking the concept on the assumption that he would never actually get a chance to write a Green Lantern story of his own.

This was, obviously, an incorrect assumption. Indeed, “All Flesh is Grass” is not even the only opportunity Moore had to write Green Lantern stories. During his time at DC, he had the opportunity to write a trio of short stories featuring the characters. These stories in many ways resemble DC Universe versions of his Future Shocks for 2000 AD - all are short stories featuring twist endings. 

Figure 540: Mogo revealed. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Dave Gibbons, from Green Lantern #188, 1985)
The first, “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” pairs Moore with Dave Gibbons for a story about a Green Lantern named Mogo and why he doesn’t attend meetings of the Green Lantern Corps. It feature Bolphunga the Unrelenting, who is said to have “possessed the strength of a Denebian Dozerbull, the endurance of a Lalotian Lava-Limpet, and the intelligence of a bed of kelp.” Bolphunga decides that he will destroy the feared and powerful Green Lantern known as Mogo, landing upon the planet on which Mogo is known to arrive. Over the course of three pages Bolphunga searches for Mogo, but finds nothing save for a series of vast and carefully cut clearings. Eventually, mapping the planet, he realizes the awful truth: that the clearings form the insignia of the Green Lanterns, and that Mogo is not in fact a being upon the planet but is in fact a sentient planet, which in turn explains why Mogo never shows up at meetings: “his gravity field, you see. It would pull Oa apart.” 

Figure 541: Rot Lop Fan joins the F-Sharp Bell Corps.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Bill Willingham and Terry
Austin, from Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3,
A similar sense of wit pervades Moore’s third Green Lantern story, “In Blackest Night.” In this story, a Green Lantern named Katma Tui must explain to the Guardians how she was unable to find a Green Lantern to serve “in the black and lightless void known as the Obsidian Deeps.” The problem, Katma explains is that the being she found, Rot Lop Fan, was unable to understand the idea of a Green Lantern, since, residing in the Obsidian Deeps, he has no ability to comprehend the concepts of color or light. And so Katma Tui is forced to translate the concept, replacing the idea of a lantern with a bell, and the color green with the tone F-Sharp, which Rot Lop Fan finds particularly “soothing and restful.” And so instead of the Green Lanterns’ traditional oath, Rot Lop Fan proclaims that “In loudest din or hush profound / my ears catch evil’s slightest sound / let those who toll out evil’s knell / beware my power: The F-Sharp Bell!” And so, she explains to the Guardians, “I did appoint a worthy protector to the Obsidian Deeps… however I’m not sure if he qualifies as a member of the Green Lantern Corps, for in truth he’s never even heard of us!” 

But it is in most regards the second of his three Green Lantern stories that is most interesting. One of two collaborations he did with Kevin O’Neill while at DC, the story, entitled “Tygers,” tells of the death of Abin Sur, the predecessor to Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern for Earth’s sector of space. The story is notable for several reasons. For one, it is the story that Moore was referring to in later interviews where he accused DC of “going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of night.” [continued]

Monday, November 17, 2014

His Face, His Hair, Look at It: The Doctors Revisited (Patrick Troughton)

It's not surprising that the Troughton era is, in effect, reduced to a celebration of Troughton's acting, and for the most part, this is a dramatic improvement over the standard narrative prior to this. It is, like the Hartnell era, still entirely about leading up to the present day - the main hook for Troughton is that Matt Smith based his performance on him. This is put up front and trumpeted. So celebrating Troughton for his acting is necessarily about glorifying the present.

All the same, it's not wrong. And it's worth contrasting with the previous official narrative of the Troughton era, in which Season Five was the high point of it because it had all the monsters. Sure, the Ice Warriors get center stage for a bit in what is, in hindsight, blatantly just a teaser for Cold War (with Moffat reflecting that we never see the actual Ice Warriors), but the previous take on the Troughton era where he was the clownish Doctor and it was good because it had Yeti isn't even alluded to.

Instead we focus on Troughton's acting, which is fitting, because it really is extraordinary, in a way that holds up today. He's astonishingly subtle and meticulous. He always was. And Tennant's statement that every Doctor is really just doing variations on Troughton now is absolutely true. And it's a triumphant moment to see Troughton himself get the credit for that, because he genuinely deserves it. He invented the part of the Doctor as we know it today.

The problem, if you think it's a problem, is that there's nothing to replace the celebration of the monsters. The Troughton era becomes almost entirely about glorifying Troughton's performance. Of course, this isn't entirely unfair. The era played the base under siege card too many times, and didn't do enough brilliant and weird stuff. It's not that the bases under siege were bad, but the mix was off on the era. And, of course, there's the problem of what survives in the archives (or possibly of what Phil Morris has turned over) that makes it tricky to valorize any particular part of the Troughton era except for Season Six, which is the toughest to glamorize in many ways.

Not that they don't give it a good try with an impassioned defense of Zoe that, watching it, also feels overdue. Moffat speaks with genuine conviction of the way in which Zoe was a triumph for young female audiences because she was made so competent, and it's true. She may have gotten gratuitous catsuit ass shots, but she was a bolder character than the show had tried with the female companion since Susan petered out.

(Also hilarious is John Barrowman's account of being excited to see Jamie debut and enthusiastically telling his mother there was a Scotsman on Doctor Who, since he would have been doing that from inside the womb.)

But for all of this, there is something frustrating about where the narrative focus ends up. The selected story for showing after this special was Tomb of the Cybermen, because of course it was. It really is hard to complain too much - for all the story's faults, and they are numerous, it does have some good visuals. Perhaps more to the point, it's pretty solidly acted. The script's naff and the casting's a bit racist, but everyone is trying on the day, and that really does help. Moffat admits to some of the faults in his introduction (though, of course, not the racism), and, look, I recognize I'm being a grumpy old man about Tomb of the Cybermen.

It's just that The Mind Robber was the right length too. And that's the thing. The official narrative is at least getting the high point of the Troughton era right, which is to say, Troughton himself. But the top-line executive summary required by a half-hour special can't really encompass the fact that Troughton's material was uneven, and so goes for the simplest triumph it has instead of emphasizing the weirdness. It's a better Troughton era than "the monster era" lets it be. But it's not allowed to be quite as good as the Troughton era itself was.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Waffling (November 15th, 2014)

Well. It's been a while since we've waffled, hasn't it? I suppose that means I should give a sort of update on work. I'm most of the way through the next Last War in Albion chapter, and hoping to finish that in the next week or two. After that, the Secret Doctor Who Project will become my main focus until that's done.

As for books, the Logopolis book is through the first round of copyediting, and I'm sitting down with those edits imminently. After that, I'll start the Davison/Baker book.

So, what've you been up to?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wait in Here Please, Susan: The Doctors Revisited (William Hartnell)

Sorry to those of you who are already annoyed about how much I'm delaying ending this thing. You can always stop reading and end it now - I won't mind. But I've always put on the brakes at the end of an era, slowing down and relishing the opportunity to make a definitive statement. The end of the blog, unsurprisingly, is going to be like that but even moreso. The last entry will go up February 9th. It's scheduled through, I know what I'm doing with it, we're doing the ending of TARDIS Eruditorum with deliberation and knowledge, and it's not going to be much more self-indulgent than the end of Sandman.

But first, we're going to go through these BBC America specials done, one a month in 2013, to lead up to the 50th Anniversary. Mostly because it's an opportunity to look at how Doctor Who itself gave an official self-history at the same moment as we wrap up our history of it. These will generally be short entries. But they're worth doing, as part of the end of the ritual.

These are basically clip shows with talking heads and a generic narrator to link up the talking heads. In practice, this one is narrated by David Tennant and Steven Moffat, who do most of the heavy lifting of actually explaining the Hartnell era. They slot into their respective roles quite well. Tennant enjoys giving the sort of official factual fan history, dutifully trotting out the basic descriptions and acting as the sort of head teacher and guide. He's good at it, providing your basic factual history.

What's more interesting is Moffat's role. Moffat, as executive producer, now, as he's put it, doesn't get to have opinions about Doctor Who anymore. But here he's called on not only to have opinions, but to contribute to a narrative of how Doctor Who has always been brilliant - a narrative that we know full well he doesn't actually subscribe to, because he's too much the critically-minded professional to forgive things like The Web Planet.

The magic of this, though, is that he handles this challenge not by doing what one suspects Russell T Davies usually did to arrive at his "it's all marvelous" policy and simply lying through his teeth, but by actually identifying small bits that he thinks work well. The result enlivens this considerably, because you have Moffat picking up on small and odd details that he loves - for instance, he gives a quite enthused account of how The Daleks is satisfying because it's not actually building the Daleks to return, and so they have their own self-contained concept, which makes them work better. One suspects that this is more or less the only thing he likes about the Daleks, along with the Dalek reveal and the first cliffhanger. But it's a compelling case, and actually looks at The Daleks as a weird historical artifact. His accounts of why Barbara works and of the Doctor's declaration that he's going to fight the Daleks in The Dalek Invasion of Earth are similarly magnificently chosen details.

And this, in many ways, captures what's genuinely nice about this take on Hartnell, which is that it doesn't just do An Unearthly Child and The Daleks, but instead actually looks at the way in which the Hartnell era is its own thing. Indeed, the first few minutes of the program are spent freely admitting that the Hartnell era looks very weird today. And it focuses on things that aren't part of the usual narrative - it even gives a peek at The Gunfighters, albeit one that consists of John Barrowman doing a ludicrously performative account of how ridiculous it is followed by (in the episode's most sublime shot) Caro Skinner giving a very dignified and professional assessment of how striking the episode is that is blatantly based on the single publicity still someone showed her immediately before she gave her answer. But a vision of the Hartnell era that accepts The Gunfighters as something to celebrate, even if only for its insanity, still feels like progress. Certainly it's better than the Bentham orthodoxy, even if it's still clearly reacting to it.

More frustrating is what it leaves out, which is basically Vicki, i.e. the actual most popular bit of the era in terms of being watched by people. The Ian/Barbara/Vicki team is the iconic Hartnell cast - the one that made up the center of the era and that got the best ratings. Instead it focuses on the creation of the series and the modernizing of it right before it was handed off to Troughton. The result is that the Hartnell era never quite gets to be itself. It's treated only in terms of how it contributes to the rest of Doctor Who's history. It's treated with love and appreciation, but less for what it did and more for what it set up.

It's still a better treatment of the era than the sort of historicized distance with which it's been treated in past attempts. One at least gets the sense that the Hartnell era was something, and the idea that people might enjoy watching it on its own merits feels like it's actually being taken seriously, which is genuinely satisfying. It's probably the best account of the Hartnell era by a BBC-authorized source to date, in that it gives a sense of weirdness and quality, which are, in practice, the two defining characteristics of the era. But there's still a frustrating sense of omission here - a sense that the true weirdness of the era isn't allowed to thrive.